How do you tell an epic tale of succession, greed and lust for power in about an hour?
“It’s tricky,” admits local actor Alan Marriott.
Not one to shy away from a theatrical challenge, Marriott combined his love of Shakespeare and comedy into the play The Histories, which he calls a two-handed exploration of all of the Bard’s history plays in one show (that’s eight plays, five kings, two actors, and one hour). Marriott co-wrote the play a few years ago, and it was originally performed in Edinburgh. The Histories was set to make its Canadian debut at the Vancouver International Fringe Festival this week until Marriott’s co-star in the production had to bow out on short notice.
But, as Marriott points out, the show must go on. Enter Will Shakespeare’s ImprovMusical. Marriott first encountered the improv musical in London in 1987. It has since made its way across the pond and has been regularly performed at Granville Island’s Improv Centre. As its name suggests, the show features improvised songs.
Marriott notes that each night of the Fringe Festival production of Will Shakespeare’s ImprovMusical will present a new show, with improvised and unrehearsed songs that fit the story but are inspired by audience suggestions in a combination of Shakespeare’s plots with Broadway’s tunes. A cast of local improvisers join Marriott on his musical journey, and although the last-minute change in production was unexpected, it almost seems befitting for an actor who has spent much of his career thinking on his feet.
Marriott has been performing improvisational comedy since 1980, and was a member of the original Vancouver TheatreSports League when it debuted the same year.
His 32-year career has mainly been split between improv and voice acting. Marriott first found improv when he was a student at Langara College’s theatre program, Studio 58. His teacher at the time, whom he lists as a major inspiration, mentioned an interesting new thing from Calgary starting up at a local theatre. It was called theatre sports.
“I just got completely hooked and I’ve never let it go since,” reports Marriott. “I guess I’m kind of a structuralist and I like the idea of things having underlying structures to them. So improv is really attractive because you’re caught in this world of on-the-spot, you’re doing things on the spot and creating out of the blue, but you’re working in a very disciplined way.”
A scripted play or film generally follows rigid storytelling, he explains. “Your mayhem is in how you do it. In improv, the ‘what’ you do is the mayhem, but how you do it is actually quite structural.”
Despite the comedy element of improv, Marriott considers himself more of an actor than a comedian.
“People forget when theatre sports first started it wasn’t started by comedians, it was started by actors,” he explains. “The skills that you need to be a good improviser are not necessarily comedic ones.”
However, comedy has become the focus of improv thanks to the popularity of comedy-focused troupes such as Second City, he notes.
A lot of comedians went into the improv world to build comedy tools. “But what it actually gave them was some acting tools that they maybe didn’t have before,” says Marriott. “That’s what’s interesting, I think, about the improv world and how it has affected comedians. It trains a comedian how to act, really.”
Marriott has been teaching improv since 1981, and has been exploring storytelling structures more often used in scriptwriting, such as “hero’s journey” and other archetype work. This approach lends itself to different forms of improv that include improvised musicals and longer-form stories.
“That’s one way that the form is definitely evolving and changing to tell longer stories and stories that are less overly game-oriented,” notes Marriott.
TheatreSports has an obvious game structure with competing teams, but Marriott has tried to lessen the competitive angle of improv.
“I actually think improv is anything but about competition,” he says. “I actually think it’s about cooperation.” The more the actors learn how to cooperate and combine ideas, the stronger those ideas are, he adds.
Combining ideas using improvisation techniques is something Marriott has also taken into various boardrooms. As part of a crossover into marketing, he has introduced improv techniques to help trigger inspiration, boost brainstorming and improve idea-sharing at a number of businesses.
“It’s exciting to see it go into something practical like that,” says Marriott.
For show times and more information on the Vancouver Fringe Festival, go to vancouverfringe.com.